Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Great Disposable Plastic Spill

In the 1970's, we learned that getting our trash into the trashcan was all it took to "Give a Hoot" and "Don't Pollute!" I am truly nostalgic for those days before the onslaught of plastic pollution changed the rules of the game. The old 3 Rs: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle don't begin to deal with the problem of synthetic pollution made from petrochemicals that has steadily increased since its introduction in the late 1950's. It's hard to believe that the single most ubiquitous consumer item in the world today, the single-use plastic bag, didn't appear in grocery stores until the 1980's. If you miss the trashcan with plastic trash, it doesn't just look bad for a while. It may last long beyond seven generations of human life, and it will probably end up in the nearest lake or ocean. The oceans have replaced the world's largest landfills as the biggest dumps on the planet. With single-use plastic production ever increasing, landfills filling, and recycling near nil, all that plastic has to go somewhere.

Our oceans are truly in crisis from multiple attacks. They are overfished, they are warming up and acidifying, and they are polluted with chemicals and petroleum gushers that devastate whole regions. The public is just learning that there is an ongoing petroleum spill into every waterway and ocean: The Great Disposable Plastic Spill. Thanks to Charles Moore and his Algalita Marine Research Foundation, and those who followed him, we have over a decade of research on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch 1000 miles off the coast of California where plastic collects around the North Pacific Gyre. That swirling mess is but one of 5 major oceanic gyres on the planet that are all collecting our unwanted plastics. is currently conducting research in the Atlantic.

The public is just learning about plastic pollution, but the petrochemical lobbyists are one step ahead to preserve the lucrative market for single-use products made from petroleum. When I was a prosecutor in the courtroom, we had a saying about defense attorneys who used smoke and mirrors because they didn't have anything substantive to show the jury. "When they lack the facts, they distract." Lobbyists working for Exxon, Dow, and The American Chemistry Council have developed a brilliant campaign to distract the public from the consequences of plastic pollution on our environment, our economy and public health. The general outlines of the strategy are as follows:

1. Promote Recycling as the solution to plastic pollution. The plastics lobby advocates for, though they do not fund, single-use plastic recycling initiatives because recycling will never stem the tide of virgin petroleum product. Recycling rates for single-use plastics are abysmal and plastic is generally only down-cycled into lower grade materials, so there is no threat to continual new production of products that are used but once and thrown away. Most single-use plastic that does get to a recycling plant ends up in a landfill because it is contaminated with food or other substances, or it is sent to other countries where it is burned. In the meantime, taxpayers pay for the costly clean-up, recycling collection and sorting, and landfill.

2. Promote vague and misleading vocabulary about plastic pollution. The term "marine debris" is promoted by the ACC because it doesn't point fingers at plastic, which accounts for 80-90% of trash both on beaches and in the ocean. Non-profit Plastic Pollution Coalition advises its members to use the term Plastic Pollution because this term identifies the source of the problem and facilitates life-cycle analysis from production through the interminable life of plastic on land or in water.

3. Prevent or delay the reduction of single-use plastics through legal strategies. The ACC has sued local jurisdictions to require environmental impact reports on plastic bag bans and sponsored the current California legislation that outlaws fees on single-use plastic bags.

4. Infiltrate the "environmental" groups by funding them. The plastics lobby funds clean-up missions and research on clean-up strategies to divert attention and resources from stopping the ongoing flow of plastic pollution. The American Chemistry Council, for example, funds Project Kaisei. Reputable marine scientists insist that even if we had all the resources and time in the world to do it, we cannot strain the ocean of plastics that exist in such massive quantities, in both macro and micro sizes, and throughout the water column, without straining the ocean of life. The only "solution" is to turn off the tap of plastics entering the ocean and to wait for it to eventually wash to shore, sink and be covered with sediment, or be eaten! This is a situation that calls for avoiding further hazard; not fiddling while the ocean is destroyed.

5. Buy lots of Advertising and Legislators before key votes. The recent 21-14 vote defeating AB 1998, The Single-Use Bag Reduction Act, in the California legislature came as a surprise to many since the supporting coalition was so large and broad-based including the California Grocers Association, labor, the Democratic Party, a Republican governor and business as well as the expected support from environmental groups. But while the bill's advocates worked the entire state gaining popular support, the ACC dominated the airwaves strategically in the state's capitol with misleading ads about job losses that ridiculed legislators for paying attention to plastic bags. This strategy was paired with friendly financial donations to legislators. Who runs our government anyway, the people or corporations?

Plastics are made from petroleum; there is less and less available, and we are going to tragic lengths to get at it as evidenced in the Gulf disaster with loss of life and habitat. Should we be risking life and limb for single use-bags and plastic bottles that can easily be replaced with sustainable alternatives? Should we be risking our food chain as plastic fragments become more plentiful than plankton in our oceans? Should we be exposing our fetuses, babies and children to the endocrine disrupting chemicals that leach out of plastic food containers into our food and drink? These questions and their answers are exactly what the plastics lobby wants you to avoid.

There is a growing international army of marine biologists, environmental groups, civic leaders, public health experts, governmental agencies, parents and youth who are willing to take on the purveyors of plastic pollution. We call ourselves the Plastic Pollution Coalition. Please join and help us Prevent Plastic Pollution. Add a 4th R before the other three, and Refuse single-use plastics!


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